What it really feels like to wear the ‘burqa’
Last updated at 15:40pm on 14th October 2006
As I walk along a London street I feel completely cut off from the world around me. I’m in it, yet I’m apart. I’m wearing a burqa, the full-length Islamic veil that covers not only a woman’s body, but her head and face as well. What I can see of the world, I’m seeing through a crocheted panel set into the black material. It stops me from really seeing where I am going and it stops me from seeing what’s going on to my left or right. I feel like a blinkered horse, forced to look straight ahead, undistracted by what may be happening on either side of me. The first thing I realise, apart from the fact that it is incredibly hot and airless under the thick black material is that I can no longer communicate with the people I pass. On a pedestrian crossing, I turn to smile my thanks at the driver who’s stopped to let me cross. But black material hides the gesture. I perch on the red bench at the bus stop. There are ten other people in the queue, many of different nationalities. The bus is late and there’s a comradely growl of complaint about London Transport as yet another bus of the wrong number comes round the corner. It’s a tiny moment of human communication and relationship which I, in the solitude of my black tent, am wholly excluded from. No one even bothers to look in my direction. It makes me feel less than human. When Jack Straw disclosed that he asks Muslim women who hold constituency meetings with him to remove their veils so that they can truly talk face to face, he unleashed a storm of controversy. He later told BBC Radio Lancashire that we needed to discuss this issue in our society, because we relate to people through their faces and if you can’t read people’s faces properly, that makes for some separation. Jack Straw was referring to the niqab, a veil which usually leaves a long open slot around the eyes, but I decided to take it one step further with my burqa, the most concealing of veils, which leaves just the mesh screen to see through. Sitting on the bus, I thought about what he had said. We do read people through their faces, and not only their faces: their clothes, their hands, their jewellery: all give us clues about who a person is, whether they’re trustworthy, potentially likeable. Lately, we’ve made a big fuss about hoodies, and young men wearing motorbike helmets aren’t allowed into office buildings unless they remove their helmets so we can see their faces. The bus fills up and a woman sits down in the seat beside me. I look at her sideways out of the corner of my crocheted panel. She’s my age, nicely dressed, looks like she’s going to work. Just then my phone starts ringing and I fumble under my burqa to try and turn it off. But I see it’s my husband calling and decide to take it. After a mumbled conversation, I turn it off and look at my neighbour. She’s grinning. “You’re in disguise”, she says. I confess that I am and ask what she thought when she sat down next to me. “I didn’t want to, but there wasn’t anywhere else to sit and my feet hurt. I mean, you could be anything, a man, a woman, a bomber. Veiled woman are frightening.” Dressed like this, no one can tell anything about me and in that absence of familiar signals, there are only assumptions based on fear. Male and female bedouins first wore veils to shield themselves from sandstorms and it wasn’t until the 10th century that the garment was imposed across the Middle East to diminish the status of women. It is not a widespread custom. There are no burqas in largely Muslim Indonesia, Malaysia or Bangladesh. In the Seventies I lived and worked in Kuwait where most of my strictly Muslim friends took pride in their Western dress. I was editing an Arabic women’s weekly magazine which had been started by a dynamic Kuwaiti woman, Ganima Al-Mazouk, who had used her own personal fortune to try to transform the lives of Arab women. By the time I met Ganima, her husband had died and she had embraced the Mouhajabah movement. Mouhajabah literally means the wearing of a head cover (as against the burqa in which I was walking around London) and for Ganima it was a reaction to the Westernisation of Mulsim countries. In the Arab world’s rush to embrace everything Western — fast cars, drink, gambling — many of the women felt alienated and unwanted, as the age-old structures of life collapsed. No longer were marriages arranged: now you had to find a husband through seduction and feminine wiles. Many quickly discovered that competing with Western women, wearing the same clothes and make-up and living independent lives, made them uncomfortable. “It made us feel like sex objects, as if men were only judging us by our looks”, she told me. Covering your head made a public statement of “treat me like a person, not a sex object”. But there was never any element of subjugation in Ganima’s decision. It was one that I found easy to respect. But that all seems a long time ago — an awful lot has changed in both our countries. It’s tricky getting off the bus. The sight panel floats in front of my eyes, so that, unless I pull it down with one hand, I cannot see the ground directly beneath me. I end up gripping the fabric between my teeth as I step off the Number 7 on to Oxford Street. It’s just after nine in the morning as I walk along the pavement, looking at the shop windows. By extraordinary coincidence I see someone I know very well walking towards me. I know where she works and I guess she’s on her way there now. I stare at her as she approaches but, of course, I’m just a mobile black shape. I’m nobody. Then I think that if she was also dressed as I am, I wouldn’t recognise her either. Two friends could pass each other by a matter of a few feet and be none the wiser. In Selfridges, I walk slowly through the make-up department. Needless to say, no one approached me offering sample sprays of perfume. I gingerly negotiate the escalator to the basement and sit down at the small cafe next to stands full of brightly coloured vases, mirrors, trinkets, costume jewellery and candle sticks. I don’t feel that any of these things — unessential but pretty and life affirming — are for me. I want a cup of coffee but how to attract the waiter? It’s pointless turning my head in his direction and smiling to get his attention. After a few minutes, I put up my hand and he comes over, smiling. I smile back, forgetting that he won’t see this. Awkwardly, I drink my coffee under the folds of fabric thinking how terribly tricky it is to perform even simple tasks like this. On the next table, a couple are having an argument about a present they might or might not buy for a forthcoming wedding. You can’t read a book, let alone a newspaper, when you’re dressed like this, so I eavesdrop on their every word. They are quite oblivious to the black shape sitting in the chair beside them. It feels lonely, the black cotton surrounding me denying me the simple human interactions of everyday life: a smile, a nod, a look, the little acts of communication that tell us we’re human beings occupying the same space. Back on the street, I board another bus and travel down Regent Street towards the Trafalgar Square. No one sits next to me. The veil is an explicit statement of separation and distance. It seems to me to be far more than a statement of religious identity. Nuns wear habits, to express their relationship to their God, but you can always see their faces. Their dress is not shouting out “don’t deal with me”. The burqa is different. It says, or at least to me it seems to say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you” and, at this level, it is hard not to see it as a rejection of our society and of our world, especially of the way in which women live in our world. I know that underneath their veils, many Muslim women wear pretty clothes and make-up, sharing these with their friends and family from inside the safety of their homes. I understand also that for many women there is a feeling of safety inside these garments. The problem of how to deal with people, how to negotiate your way as a citizen is removed. But I find it hard to believe that it can make a woman happy. If being veiled was such a great way to live, then why don’t Arab men dress like this, too? A few buses later and after several more cups of coffee, I walk into Marks & Spencer’s. Circling through the racks of clothes, I end up bumping into three different people because I couldn’t see them from out of the corner of my eyes. The colours of the autumn ranges are bright and pretty and as I’m standing beside the cashmere jumpers, a couple walks close by. They’re in late middle age and their voices are loud. “Just look at that,” the woman sneers, “It’s horrible. You can’t see her. You can’t ever see her eyes.” “I know, I know” nods her husband in agreement. “Really horrible.” Their disapproval seems to border on hatred. I stand there feeling stunned and outraged. I want to rip off the black garment and hit them. I hate being inside this hot tent and I will never believe that any woman would willingly decide that that was how she wanted to live, but neither do I think anyone has the right to insult women who dress like this, nor do any of us have the right to say that it should be against the law to wear one. I bought a glittery black and silver top and paid in cash. The cashier took the money briskly, not bothering to smile or joke or engage in any of the normal platitudes. Arab men conceal their women under folds of black cloth to hide their sexuality and to claim ownership — the only males who can see them uncovered are their fathers, husbands and sons —which makes the burqa, in an odd way a sexual garment. It’s like a chastity belt, but also alluring because things that are hidden create their own sexual mystery. What burqa wearers don’t have to play is the comparison game that is the lot of Western women — who, no matter how confident, are permanently judging themselves against often impossible images of feminine perfection. Many Muslim women in this country may well be telling the truth when they say that they wear the full veil out of choice. And choice is something that is intrinsic to a liberal society. Wearing the veil cuts a woman out of our society, a society which embraces freedom and opportunity. But why should our values be the only ones that are ‘right?’ and what, at the end of the day, is wrong with difference? In our liberal world the only rules we have are that, provided you don’t break the law, you can live entirely as you like, and isn’t that the real point of a liberal society? So have we the right to be intolerant of the veil? We may not like women in veils and we may feel that it is to their detriment, because they can’t get a job in a busy, competitive office or strive to be beautiful lookalikes of Kate Moss. All the same, I would deeply resent being told what to do and how to behave, and doesn’t it totally invalidate our concept of living in a genuinely liberal society if we insist that all people be alike, at least where women and their dress code is concerned? And yet, I find it impossible to believe that the women who say they wear the veil out of choice have not in fact been coerced and influenced by their male relatives and clerics. The Chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools and the Principal of Leicester Islamic Academy, Muhammad Mukdam recently said on Radio Four’s The Moral Maze that all girls at his school, even non-Muslim girls, would be expected to cover themselves. “We have a school uniform and that means wearing the hijab and the jilbab.” These young girls, growing up in our society where women have fought to win the equality and rights we have today, are, it seems to me, being denied full access to that world. Most jobs in Britain would be quite impossible for women wearing burqas, leaving them with no option but to live off their fathers or husbands. And yet, it is hard to see how legislation itself could ever change this. The best way has to be encouragement through example. But the example we currently hold up is hugely flawed: fashionistas struggling to achieve a size zero body, a generation of women plunging into debt to buy the latest must-have clothes, scantily dressed teenage girls getting legless on a Friday night because somehow this is thought of as “cool”. Looking out between the slits of my long black veil, I have little confidence that the example we currently hold out is one that everyone would willingly leap to embrace. I’m coming at this as a feminist who has always fought for freedom and for choice and everything the burqa stands for runs contrary to this. The freedom that women in the West enjoy has been long fought for and rightfully prized. But I wonder if our noisy condemnation of this mode of dress doesn’t actually entrench it further into Muslim culture as it stokes up such heated prejudice. In that febrile atmosphere it is nigh on impossible to separate what is an issue of human rights from accusations of racism and Islamophobia. Feminism spread in this country because women were given the confidence to make choices about how they wanted to live and I can only hope that living in the West will give Arab women the courage to confront the veil and make choices based on what they want — and not on the whims of the clerics and their men.